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Working on a 20-year vision for the airport

November 8, 2018
Engineers Bill Burkland and Rick Donaldson, Robert Peccia & Associates, presented the latest iteration of the Boundary County Airport Master Plan to a small gathering Monday evening.
About 25 people showed up at Hangars S the Boundary County Airport Monday evening to hear engineers from Robert Peccia and Associates lay out a new airport master plan. And while it outlines an ambitious plan to move and extend the runway, airport manager Dave Parker has hopes that completion might make it possible to get a snow plow before the snow flies.

While many hear the word "plan" and think it's only a guide to what might lie ahead, but in actuality, for the airport, it's much more than that. With a plan approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, small airports such as Boundary County's can go and thrive, as it's what paves the way for federal funding.

"This is our best estimate of airport needs for the next 20 years to gain the maximum possible use in its current location," said engineer Rick Donaldson of the engineering firm Robert Peccia & Associates. "It's not a blueprint, it's not saying this is what we'll do. That is a community decision, whether to develop and how much."

Without that plan, Parker said, the airport would die, as there is no way the local community and economy could support it.

"Sure, it's a guide to the future," Parker said. "It tells us where the FAA wants us to go to be in compliance with aviation safety regulations. But it's an essential document because without it, we can't get federal money, and without federal money we can't exist."

The federal monies he is talking about isn't from the general fund, but from revenue raised by aviation, a 25-cent fuel tax on every gallon of aviation fuel sold and a ticket tax of $10 for every passenger who flies is the primary source of airport funding across the United States, shared by international airports like LAX, region hubs like the Spokane airport and right down to the small yet essential airports that serve communities like Bonners Ferry.

Back to the snow plow Dave needs. Currently, he has a plow County Road & Bridge put on surplus, an old 1973 that's broken down both winters the airports have used it. Road and bridge has sent in plows when they could spare them, but even so, Dave had to shut down the runway too many times because of snow, meaning no one, from air ambulances to recreational pilots, could fly in.

"You're talking about a runway that's 75-feet wide," Parker said, "and it holds a lot of snow. When your plow breaks down and you've got berms seven feet high on both sides, there's nothing you can do except close down and divert traffic."

He's not looking for extravagant, either. Last year he put in a grant application for a serviceable plow for $12,000, less than the cost of a pickup, but just missed winning it.

By developing the Airport Layout Plan, places like Boundary County Airport can get the equipment needed for three to seven cents on the dollar ... a little from the county, a little from the state and the FAA picking up the rest of the tab.

The new plan, which Parker says has about two months to go before it can be "blessed" by the FAA and adopted by the county, had some features that surprised Dave, who's managed the Boundary County Airport now for 21 years.

For many years, the biggest FAA concern regarding our local airport was the north end, where it adjoins Highway 2. Highway 2 with it's power lines, businesses and homes, which have multiple things that you don't want to crash an airplane into in the event of an emergency and which tend to poke things up into the airspace needed by pilots landing and taking off.

In the past, Boundary County has purchased property across Highway 2 just so they could cut trees jutting into the air space. Now, with the potential of a sewer system going in, development along that corridor is likely to boom, and with that development potential problems for the airport that could become major if not addressed beforehand.

There is an airport overlay zone in place in the county zoning and subdivision ordinance, and P&Z board member Caleb Davis was one of those on hand Monday night to see  firsthand what lies ahead. The proposal made by the engineers is simplicity itself, and never before looked at officially; what if we relocated the runway several feet to the south and east?

While it won't be cheap if that's what the county decides it wants to do, it does solve a great number of existing problems and it would enable the airport to both extend the runway to accommodate the larger business-type jets needing to come in here as well as enable the county to address potential growth issues before they occur.

"Right now, our runway is barely long enough to handle small jets even when it's dry," Parker said. "Anheuser Busch doesn't fly in here any more even though they need to, and we're just on the threshold for medical jets. When it's wet or icy, they can't land here."

The airport, which started out a grass strip, is growing.

There are now, Parker said, about 70 aircraft based at Boundary County Airport. When he started 20 years ago, there were between 15 and 20. For the past few years there have been one to three new hangars built each year. And while small prop aircraft still predominate, he's seeing the trend to more and bigger aircraft, especially as summer fire seasons seem to be getting longer and hotter.

While it's "only a plan," the Boundary County Airport Master Plan is an essential key to the future of aviation here, and key to taking advantage of the many economic benefits a healthy and vibrant airport brings to a community like ours.

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Bonners Ferry, ID 83806